Our warm winter means Lyme disease is on the rise, but don't let fear keep you from venturing outdoors.
Especially since you don’t need to spend your whole summer camping under the stars to be at risk for getting bitten by a potentially Lyme-carrying, black-legged tick.
They can find their way onto our skin after during an afternoon hike—whether through the deepest of woods or even in our neighborhoods.
And though Lyme disease is treatable, those of us who know people who’ve suffered from the disease, which results in flu-like symptoms and arthritis, among other things, know it’s one best to avoid. We don’t want anyone we know and love coming down with it.
Even still, we’re told to “not panic” about the threat of ticks and Lyme disease. Seems easier said than done when we’re weighing the pros and cons of that weekend hike in our favorite bit of woods. But a conversation with pediatrician Dr. Hannah Chow-Johnson, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University in Chicago, revealed that the “not panic” wisdom is well-founded. We can settle down and enjoy our outings—especially when we adhere to four rules:
1. Find out if there are a lot of ticks in your area
Dr. Chow-Johnson encourages families to keep their outdoor summer plans, but she says, find the risks for ticks and Lyme disease (or, frankly, any health issues before embarking). She recommends a visit to the Centers for Disease Control for information either in your own neighborhoods or in places we travel. A quick look at the Tick Distribution Map shows areas where Lyme-carrying ticks thrive—and where you are unlikely to meet one.
The site keeps “up-to-date with outbreaks” and tells travelers “what travelers need to be aware of” when it comes to health concerns.
By checking out the CDC, Dr. Chow-Johnson says, we not only know what to look out for—but what we don’t. Too often people assume risks are bigger than they are. A quick bit of information can settle our nerves.
2. Show less skin to lower your risk
“Long sleeve, long pants, insect repellent,” says Dr. Chow-Johnson. “Basically minimize skin exposure ticks want skin.”
And in fact, they need skin to attach to us—and to infect us. So, the less skin we show, the less attractive we are to ticks.
Dr. Chow-Johnson also encourages using a 20 percent DEET or picaridin insect repellent on our clothing—not necessarily on the skin itself. This also reduces chances of a tick bite.
Of course, not everyone feels comfortable using chemicals such as DEET, so some natural remedies do help. Avid North Woods campers like Carrie Wincentsen swear by essential oils containing citronella, eucalyptus, sandalwood and cedarwood to keep the ticks away.
3. Check consistently for peace of mind
Giving you and your kids a once over every time you return from a hike—or even during a hike—isn’t paranoid, it’s good sense. According to Brian A. Fallon, MD, Director of the Lyme & Tick-borne Diseases Center at Columbia University Medical Center, the longer a tick stays on, the greater the chance of transmitting disease.
But, there’s another reason frequent checks can set our minds at ease while on that family hike: “No bites, no chance [of Lyme disease],” Dr. Chow-Johnson says. You don’t just “get it” from being near the ticks. They do need to bite you.
In addition to working to prevent bites, Dr. Chow-Johnson says “be vigilant” in checking ourselves and our kids “from scalp to feet” when returning from a wooded area.
Ticks do like to hide in the “nooks and crannies of the human body,” so we need to be sure to check even behind the ears, under arms, and in the groin area.
If we don’t find any ticks, we’re in the clear.
4. Know that even if bitten, you’ll probably be fine
And even if we do find a tick, panicking still isn’t needed. The chances of being bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick are relatively small. Only 1 to 2 percent of people bitten by a tick develop Lyme disease. That alone should calm our nerves! Also should news that “several studies indicate that early antibiotic treatment of a tick bite can reduce the risk of developing Lyme disease,” this according to Dr. Fallon.
Dr. Chow-Johnson says to remove the tick (use a tweezer to pull the head out), seal the tick in a zipper storage bag, and call your doctor. Showing your doctor the tick is easier than describing it, and your doctor can easily rule on the risk, as not all ticks carry Lyme. Some towns will also test the tick for free. It does wonders to your peace of mind to learn that even if you were bitten, the tick wasn’t diseased.
As important as each of these tips are, for Dr. Chow-Johnson comes back to prevention. Tick expert Dr. Fallon says parents “should not instill fear in their children of the outdoors. They should, however, instill awareness and vigilance about ticks.”
Indeed, prevention and vigilance are the keys to keeping us active—even when fears threaten to keep us hiding indoors. In fact, it helps to remember that according to psychologists, “fear and anxiety have been scientifically proven to harm your health, putting you at risk from heart disease to cancer to the common cold.”
So giving in to our fears—and hunkering down and away from the great wooded world—could ultimately cause us more health risks than venturing out. Especially, when news stories about heightened risks are the cause of it. “Fear sells, and the media knows it,” writes Lissa Rankin writes.
“If feeling overly anxious about any health threats,” Dr. Fallon says, “it would be important for the parent to seek professional help from a mental health counselor. If a parent is hyper-anxious and overly protective of the child, that child may well develop an illness anxiety disorder. Mental health care for the parents to help teach them ways to reduce excessive anxiety can be extremely helpful.”
Of course, this stands in stark contrast to the healing powers of walks in the woods, which are shown to improve mental and physical health.